The Surprise Guest at the DNC | Crooked Media
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August 21, 2020
Unholier Than Thou
The Surprise Guest at the DNC

In This Episode

This week at the first ever socially distant DNC, leaders from the party were invited to give speeches and remarks in support of the Biden/Harris ticket. Included in those invitations were a number of faith leaders speaking out against Trump in an unprecedented manner. One such leader is Bishop Mariann Budde, who speaks to Phill about her decision to lead the benediction at this year’s convention—and how her faith helped her make the decision. We also hear from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress, who puts into perspective what this year’s inclusion of faith leaders means for the future of the Democratic party.





Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. This week we wrapped up a political moment for the ages: a socially-distant, entirely virtual Democratic National Convention. Michelle Obama was the headliner of night one, delivering an unforgettable speech.


[clip of Michelle Obama] Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.


Phillip Picardi: But amidst a sea of familiar politicians and a few choice Republicans, there was something a little different about this year’s lineup of speakers.


[clip of Bishop Mariann Budde] May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short, grace to do something big for something good. Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.


Phillip Picardi: Right on the national primetime lineup, where religious leaders tasked with offering prayers for the nation, they’re front and center placement cast a spotlight on faith, something the Democratic Party typically shies away from. But how did faith become somewhat of an anomaly for the party? And what role does it play this year in an election the Democrats cannot afford to lose? Later on, we’ll hear from Bishop Mariann Budde, who delivered the moving benediction you just heard at the DNC on Tuesday night. But first, let’s get to the politics. Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress, has worked extensively on articulating the political power of what he calls the religious left.


Phillip Picardi: Guthrie, thank you so much for being here with us today.


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons Thanks for having me on.


Phillip Picardi: Of course. I saw you recently tweeted that you are encouraged by the DNC’s announcement of a coalition of faith leaders being invited to speak or offer prayers at the convention. Can you tell me why this is a significant occasion?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons For most Democrats, faith is part of our life, but it’s not theocratic, you know, it’s not a theocratic nut jobs of the Republican convention next week. So it often doesn’t get noticed and so I was very excited to see that the Democratic National Convention would feature faith leaders in prime time. There have been faith leaders who spoke, kind of offering invocation prayers and benediction prayers before, I think probably at every Democratic National Convention, or at least the ones I’ve seen, but to see them in prime time, like, one of the first speakers last night was really exciting. Because faith is undervalued, I think, part of the Democratic coalition and a seat at the forefront really excited me.


Phillip Picardi: It’s interesting you say that. I’m wondering, do you feel the party typically in the past has tried to isolate themselves from appearing religious or faith-oriented?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons Yeah, the religious right has so tarnished what it means to show your faith in public that many Democrats, with good reason, and many people that have been harmed by religion with good reason, don’t want to talk about religion because it’s seen as exclusive. Or if I say I’m a Christian and I’m engaging politics as a Christian, that somehow seems like I don’t want people who are Muslim or Jewish or any faith to engage their faith in the public square as well. So people have good reason to be wary of religion, but I think there is a positive place for people to engage their faith, their morals, their values in the public square. And it drives, it’s a reality that it drives many people to support Democrats.


Phillip Picardi: And do you think that on the flip side, by Democrats not being so open or overtly embracing of religion that they may actually be alienating voters?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons Yes, when people only hear about God from Trump, it really sends a terrible signal. And I hear this from people all over the country who say I want to vote Democratic, but I’m told that only, you know, I have to either choose between my faith and my politics, and just promoting the existence of religious people that are democratic, I think goes a really long way. And just giving people an example that Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic, Kamala Harris is a practicing Baptist, Ilhan Omar practicing Muslim, Bernie Sanders talks about his Jewish values. And so just to see the diversity across all the wide spectrum of people who are Democrats or progressives, it just shows people at a grassroots level that you don’t have to give up your faith to be a Democrat and vote for Joe Biden.


Phillip Picardi: Now, on a more cynical level, do you think that this was an intentional shift of strategy on the Democrat’s part this year by placing these speakers in more primetime slots to show that they also are a party of God to hopefully attract those voters?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons I hope it does attract the voters. I don’t think it’s cynical. The director of the DNC’s interfaith outreach was a seminary professor of mine at Union Seminary in New York. And he taught he taught a class I took called Servant Leadership. And he’s a servant leader, someone who was pastored for a long time. Reverend Derrick Harkins is his name, and faith is real for him. I’ve seen it up close before. You know, he was in this current position, and it’s real for so many people in the party. It was real for Hillary Clinton. It’s real for Barack Obama. It’s real for people that are Democrats. And so I don’t think it’s a ploy to get kind of, you know, conservative people of faith. It’s not this kind of ploy. It is bringing to the surface and coming out at, you know, people coming out as, in their religious identities, as Democrats.


Phillip Picardi: Hmm. The New York Times recently ran a feature on Trump’s support among evangelical Christians who appear to largely be standing by the president for his reelection, most notably because of his conservative stances, including his hardline stances around abortion. I wonder if the Democrats can’t capture the very powerful evangelical vote, can you tell me who makes up this more progressive faith voter that’s technically up for grabs in 2020?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons Sure. And if you go back, let’s go back to 2016. You had 81% of white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but ignored in that whole kind of debate, and everyone was talking about it and pundits were saying, how is this even possible? And you keep, you’ve seen so many stories like the one you’re referencing in the. New York Times about how could they do this? What’s lost in that is that the rest of Christians in this country, not to mention people of faith in general, the majority voted for Hillary Clinton. And I was so dismayed by sort of why is no one talking about this that I had to go out and, like, crunch the numbers myself and then pitch it to The Washington Post and then get it in this story in the Post, because I was like it was, it was mind bending that we’re just talking about white evangelicals. And then this, what I called in the in the piece, other Christians, were two to one in terms of the size in the electorate. So it depends on how you, white evangelicals, people have different ways of counting who is an evangelical and who’s not, but it’s somewhere around 15% of the country. And yes, they are really in lockstep with Trump because they want to criminalize abortion. They want to, you know, take away my marriage to my husband, who’s a Presbyterian pastor, which seems odd, because of their faith. So they are in lockstep with the president’s policies because he caters his policies to people that are super conservative. So they have that small constituency. But the religiosity of the Democratic Party is something you know, there are some white evangelicals in it, yes. But it’s much larger. And actually, the most consistent group into the 2016 election were Black Protestants, who voted over 90% for Hillary Clinton, and often kind of left out of this discussion about religion and politics for some reason.


Phillip Picardi: Yeah. And you say that a lot of your work is devoted to amplifying a, quote,” progressive vision of religious liberty.” So I wonder, what does that look like for you when it comes to politics? What do these progressive religious folks want from their elected officials?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons Well, in terms of religious liberty, it’s such an important issue that is misunderstood right now that the number one issue in terms of religious liberty in our country is repealing President Trump’s Muslim ban. And Joe Biden has promised to repeal the Muslim ban, and there’s legislation in Congress right now. So when I talk about reclaiming religious liberty, I mean what it’s meant to be, which is that everyone is able to practice their faith freely. Now, what Republicans and many white evangelicals want is to turn religious liberty into a license to discriminate and a license to be exempt from nondiscrimination laws and a license to deny women birth control. That is taking a very good concept and grossly distorting it to be like, I want to do whatever I want. So, but the cause of progressive Christianity and progressive people of faith is much larger. It’s part of every kind of progressive movement you see, whether that’s the environment or immigrants’ rights or LGBTQ rights or reproductive freedom or the Black Lives Matter movement. You see progressive people of faith are active in all of those movements. And for many of us, there’s no conflict in being a part of the progressive movement. It’s because of our faith that we’re active in it.


Phillip Picardi: I do wonder, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people in the party who believe in the firm separation of church and state. But I wonder if you think that the party’s invitation of faith leaders to the convention this week at all contradicts the value of the separation of church and state?


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons I don’t see any contradiction there. The religious diversity of the Democratic Party, including a sizable number of people who are not affiliated with any religious tradition, is a cause of celebration. Every Democratic politician quotes Dr. King, they just leave out the reverend from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. There’s a place for people bringing their faith into the public square in a way that’s inclusive. And actually, when we talk about theocracy and the religious right and Christian nationalism being on the rise in this country, we actually, there’s a great campaign called Christians Against Christian Nationalism. And there’s a lot of, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is a great organization, and I’ve worked closely with them and their faith outreach person because a lot of faith groups are committed to separating church and state, you know, affirming the First Amendment and reclaiming a positive vision. But the vision of church and state separation that we have is not ‘nobody can talk about their faith’ or ‘we don’t pray at events’ or, that’s an anti-religious view that I think is incredibly harmful to the party and needs to be called out.


Phillip Picardi: Guthrie, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.


Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons Thanks for having me on.


Phillip Picardi: We’ll be right back after this.


[ad break]


Phillip Picardi: If appealing to the religious left should be an aim of the Democratic Party, then there are few faith leaders more fit for the DNC stage than Bishop Mariann Budde. Bishop Budde prompted national headlines for criticizing Donald Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Church. You may remember the pictures. He was posing with an upside-down Bible, when just moments before protesters with the Movement for Black Lives were tear gassed in an effort to clear the way for the President’s picture. St. John’s Church is in Bishop Budde’s diocese. For more on these events, you can check out Episode 2 of this podcast, when we interviewed Reverend Gini Gerbasi, who was there at the scene. Bishop Mariann Budde’s benediction on Tuesday night then was more than colored by her willingness to take a stand against Trump and for God.


Phillip Picardi: Hi, Bishop, thank you so much for being here with me today. By the time this airs, you will have given the benediction at the Democratic National Convention. I’m wondering what it meant for you to be asked to participate.


Mariann Budde: Well, I am honored always when invited to engage in events of public significance. This was a bit more, I had to think about this one a little bit more because of the partisan nature of a political convention. I mean, it’s highly partisan and that it is the Democratic Party’s electing convention. And as a religious leader, while I am engaged and often very clear about the issues that I advocate, I don’t tend to endorse candidates or speak in a way that would be suggestive of partisanship. But I, you know, I thought about it a long time. I crafted a prayer that I would gladly offer at the Republican National Convention. And I also felt that I wanted to demonstrate to some people in the wider society who have come under the mistaken assumption that Christians only think or vote one way in this country, that we are actually a very broad, we cross a broad spectrum of political engagement. And I wanted to represent part of that breadth.


Phillip Picardi: There’s a lot to unpack there, but I guess let’s start with what you just said, which is sort of alluding to the fact that the Democratic Party isn’t exactly known for being a party of religion, certainly not THE party of Christianity, the way that the Republican Party is. And that does make your presence this week much more significant. I wonder why do you think it’s important for you and your fellow colleagues in faith to be present tonight?


Mariann Budde: First of all, it’s a, it’s a relatively new phenomenon, this alliance between a broad swath of what’s often called evangelical Christianity, and the Republican Party. That’s not, that doesn’t go back very far in our history, but it’s pretty cemented in public perception. And certainly there is a strong voting bloc within a certain section of Christianity. I would say that religious people and and Christians in particular have always been represented on kind of the whole spectrum of society because we are a part of society. So, for example, during the years leading up to the Civil War, there were Christians who would advocate a pro-slavery position on the basis of their understanding of scripture, and there were abolitionists who were fighting against slavery for the very same, citing the same Bible, right? Similarly, as we go through women’s suffrage, as we go through the civil rights era, certainly the issues of our time, there have always been Christians and people of faith across the spectrum. But we are not, those of us who are more involved on the ‘public good’ side of conversation, we’ve become muted or less influential or less noticed. And I, for that reason I was really clear that I want people to know that Christians show up in the public square, fighting for all sorts of things and advocating all sorts of things. And this election is a particularly important one.


Phillip Picardi: It is. And in fact, you’ve been an outspoken critic of President Trump, most notably after he tear-gassed protesters in order to take a photo with a Bible in his hand in front of St. John’s Church, which is across from the White House. I understand that’s a church in your diocese.


Mariann Budde: Yes.


Phillip Picardi: Why was it so important for you to speak out, especially, you know, as you say, it sounds like it’s also important for you to appear nonpartisan?


Mariann Budde: Right. I felt it was incumbent upon me to say in a public way that the spiritual mantle that President Trump seemed to be claiming with the Bible and with his photograph in front of an Episcopal church, was not his to claim and that it didn’t belong to him. And it certainly didn’t justify the words and actions that preceded that. And I felt it was really important that someone in the religious community say that. And because it is, as you said, the diocese that I serve, I felt it was mine to do. And I was clear about that. And I have been critical of the president at other times because there are times, I, there are times when I feel it’s important for me and others to say when and if a public leader has done something that is egregious or morally damaging or socially damaging. And there have been, unfortunately, many occasions in this presidency where we have needed to do that. But I’m pretty consistent in showing up in the times and places where we feel that religious and moral values are at stake. Not to protect the church. It’s not about protecting the church. It’s about what’s best for the wider society and what values, universal values, can I, as a Christian leader, put forth that are consistent with the ideals of our society?


Phillip Picardi: Sure. And there’s a lot at stake in this upcoming election, as you’ve also alluded to.


Mariann Budde: Right.


Phillip Picardi: And I’m wondering, in your opinion, if you think it’s possible to separate one’s faith from one’s politics, particularly this November?


Mariann Budde: Well, individually, I would say well, yes and no. I think it’s possible in the sense that it’s always important for people of faith to recognize that we, our allegiance spiritually is not, is to God as we understand God and the particularities of the faith tradition. So as a Christian, for me, the teachings and the examples of Jesus and my understanding of his presence in my life. So that, that is a, that’s a category unto itself. But how I live that out in the wider society, each one of us will be drawn to the political movements or the social movements that seem to best align with our efforts to be faithful to that larger or that transcendent call. No political party can be identified with the mandates of God. But there are times when, in anyone’s judgment, at a particular moment, a person or a party or a platform is more consistent and therefore would be one that we would be inclined to support. As a bishop, I don’t assume that everyone in the diocese I serve is of one mind about anything. And so I can’t, I’m not the Pope, I don’t speak with an authority that is, that supersedes conscience—and that’s not true for the Pope either. But you know what I’m saying? I have a limited authority.


Phillip Picardi: I do. Sure.


Mariann Budde: And so I don’t speak for people as if they’re all going to fall in lockstep behind me. In fact, for Episcopalians, that’s just laughable. I mean, they just, they think what they think and they do what they do. That’s part of the gift of our tradition.


Phillip Picardi: Right.


Mariann Budde: But at the same time, I do have a responsibility to speak from my position. And I do that and I let people know that’s what I’m doing. I’m not expecting them all to agree with me, but I am going to use my voice and my platform when I feel it’s critical. And I do in this election.


Phillip Picardi: So you don’t think that your benediction is at all a contradiction to the sanctity, as you call it, of the separation of church and state?


Mariann Budde: Oh, heavens, no. I don’t think that at all. I think in some ways the separation of church and state was to protect churches from being discriminated against in the public arena by having a state-sanctioned church, right? So every, it was meant the exact opposite of what people think sometimes, which is every religious organization has a place in the public square. As opposed to the older models that we saw in Europe when this country was being founded of a state church. And we don’t have that. But that doesn’t mean that Christians or Jews or Muslims or any person of faith can abdicate their role as an active member of civic society. So we do that. But I also think it’s clear to remember that when we endorse candidates, that we’re crossing a line that is probably best not crossed because it goes, it goes against a long-standing tradition of keeping ourselves focused on the issues, and less on the, on the political parties themselves.


Phillip Picardi: Well, having said that—


Mariann Budde: Having said that, I would say that assessing the quality of leadership of the current president and determining that he is not qualified to be our leader, I would dare say that’s not a partisan statement anymore. I think a line has been crossed. I have come to the conclusion that you could be a loyal member of the Republican Party and still determine that President Trump is not a suitable candidate for the presidency.


Phillip Picardi: Yes, I would happen to agree with you. But having said that, would you accept the invitation to offer a benediction at the Republican National Convention?


Mariann Budde: I would. And I would because I feel like there is an opportunity to pray. And I never, I don’t think I’d pass up an opportunity to pray. I have, I have real concerns about the direction of the country under the leadership of this president. And I also think his behavior is objectionable on so many levels that it is, it’s important for people of faith to say that. I do think his actions and his words are beneath the Office of the President of the United States. And not just in a distasteful way, but in a dangerous way. I am not afraid to say that I believe that the soul of the country is at stake now. I don’t think he’s the only one responsible for the, the drift or whatever it is that’s happening to us right now.


Phillip Picardi: Sure.


Mariann Budde: This is the first time I have said this publicly, so I may come to regret it based on what happens as a result, but I don’t think so. I think I could sleep well tonight saying what I have said to you. And I have many Republican friends and colleagues in Washington, D.C., as you might imagine. I mean, it’s a bipartisan community. Now, having said that, the number of people that have already dismissed me as their spiritual leader because of the positions I’ve taken are many. I recognize that what I have said to you would be considered a highly-partisan statement among many people. And I can’t say that I blame them, but that’s how I feel.


Phillip Picardi: It does go to show you the very many ways in which even being partisan has sort of been weaponized because we are living, as you’ve said, in extraordinary circumstances where condemnation of the president’s actions and really his inability to effectively be a president, should not be partisan. And yet here we are living in a very polarized society.


Mariann Budde: Not only polarized, but the amount of deliberate deception and casual spreading of blatant misinformation, blatant lies is what I think I take most—I mean, I take objection to a lot of things—but I think on a governing level that is, that crosses a line. And I’m not saying that hasn’t happened before in American history. I’m not naive about that. But, this is the time I’m living in, and this is the president that I have lived under as has everyone else. And I’m ready to say that I believe that it is time for this country to have a different president. It’s, we don’t have all the time in the world to fix some of the things that have come, that are staring at us as a nation and as a species. And so we need to have our wits about us and we need our best people doing the work. None of us are perfect. None of us sees perfectly. Certainly the Democratic Party is not perfect. But I do long for a functioning governance with a common definition of what constitutes a fact, and a common understanding of the importance of scientific data that leads us in a direction that can, certainly regarding the pandemic, move us to a place of health once again and a, and some policies that would allow us to have the kind of social reckoning that is long overdue and that this pandemic has laid bare. So I, you know, I just feel like time is running out. And let’s be brave. Let’s be brave.


Phillip Picardi: Bishop Budde, thank you so much for your time. And good luck this evening. I will be watching.


Mariann Budde: OK. [laughs] All the best to you. Take care.


Phillip Picardi: It’s clear that this year is an extraordinary one, and we need everyone, faithful and unfaithful, to show up to the ballot box. This election, perhaps more than any in modern history, raises crucial questions about the conscience of America. So what better time than now to very much rethink who gets to control the narrative about faith in our country? In other words, if Democrats are taking back the White House, why not take back religion, too? And hey, before we roll the credits, we’ve heard from so many of you about your ideas for an episode of Unholier than Thou. You can email us your ideas, your thoughts, and your compliments on my eyebrows to unholy at Crooked dotcom. That’s unholy at crooked dotcom.


Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and our executive producers are Lyra Smith and Sara Geismer. Thanks for listening.